Life of Jesus
Jesus was heavily influenced by the prophet Isaiah, who considered the coming of the reign of God a central topic (Isa. 52.7). Many of Jesus’ teachings have allusions to Isaiah, and he also quotes him on many occasions. Jesus is presented as an eschatological prophet announcing the definitive coming of God, its salvation, and the end of time.
Jesus gradually gained popularity and thousands of followers are mentioned in the gospels. He shared some attributes with the Pharisees and the Essenes, two of the Jewish sects at that time. Like the Pharisees, his teaching methods included the expression of thoughts about the human condition in the form of aphorisms and parables, and he also shared the belief in the genuine authority of Hebrew sacred scriptures. Unlike the Pharisaic teachers, Jesus believed that outward compliance with the law was not of utmost importance and that values such as the love for enemies were more important.
Moreover, Jesus summed up his ethical views in the double command concerning love: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind” and “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12.28-31; Matthew 22.35-40 and Luke 10.25-28). The Essenes had a very simple way of life, a pacifist spirit, common ownership of property, common meals, they practiced exorcisms, and they stressed the love for each other, all practices seen in the ministry of Jesus.
At some point towards the end of his career, Jesus moved to Jerusalem in Judea, reaching the climax of his public life. Here he engaged in different disputes with his many adversaries. At the same time, some religious authorities were seeking to entrap him into self-incrimination by raising controversial topics, mostly of a theological nature. The gospels offer different reasons as to why the Sanhedrin (the Jewish court) was interested in executing Jesus, but only John (11.47-53) seems convincing enough: Jesus was seen as a trouble-maker who threatened public harmony.
A Roman intervention to restore order, thus breaking the fine balance between Jewish and Roman power, did not interest the Sanhedrin. An arresting party finally took Jesus to the Sanhedrin, where he was judged, found guilty of blasphemy, and condemned to death. However, the execution order had to be issued by a Roman authority; the Jewish court did not have such power at that time. Therefore, Jesus was brought to the procurator of Rome who ordered Jesus’ execution. Because Jesus never denied the charges, he should have been convicted and not executed, as the Roman law required in case of confession for such a penalty. On a hill outside Jerusalem, Jesus was finally crucified and killed, which was not a Jewish form of punishment but a common Roman practice.
The Early Christian Movement
Following Jesus’ death, the Christian religion continued to flourish. This was in large part due to missionaries like the apostle Paul who successfully reshaped the religion, making it more Greco-Roman in orientation than Jewish. Indeed, playing down the importance of circumcision and pork abstinence, Paul was able to make the budding faith more palatable to a Gentile audience. Emphasizing themes such as life-after-death and personal redemption, Paul promoted Christianity in terms not unlike those promoted by the various mystery religions of the day. As such, Christianity became a competitor for converts within a very crowded religious marketplace.
From the Roman point of view, they initially identified Christianity as a sect of the Jewish religion. As Christian believers became increasingly Gentile in orientation, however, practitioners of the faith became a problem for Roman rulers. Around the year 98, Nerva decreed that Christians — unlike the Jews — would no longer be able to pay a tax in order to absolve themselves from demonstrating devotion to the Roman gods. This opened the way to the persecutions of Christians for disobedience to the emperor, as many refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and the emperor. Thus, members of the Early Christian movement often became political targets and scapegoats for the social ills and political tensions of specific rulers and turbulent periods during the first three centuries, CE; however, this persecution was sporadic and rarely Empire-wide, but it was devastating, nonetheless.
The so-called Great Persecution — during the reign of Diocletian — was the last and most severe persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. This lasted from 302-311 CE. By this point, however, the Emperor’s sweeping endeavor to wipe out the religion proved an impossibility as Christians comprised upwards of ten percent of the Roman population. In the end, the persecution failed to check the rise of the church. By 324, Constantine was sole ruler of the empire, and Christianity had become his favored religion.
Read this excerpt of Romans 5 (1-11) from the Bible:
- Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:
- By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.
- And not only so, but we glory in tribulations also: knowing that tribulation worketh patience;
- And patience, experience; and experience, hope:
- And hope maketh not ashamed; because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.
- For when we were yet without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly.
- For scarcely for a righteous man will one die: yet peradventure for a good man some would even dare to die.
- But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
- Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him.
- For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life.
- And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.
Constantine’s Relationship with Christianity
Christianity After Constantine
After Constantine, the Christianization of the Roman Empire would continue apace. Under Theodosius I (r. 378-395), Christianity became the state religion. By the 5th century, Christianity was the empire’s predominant faith, and filled the same role paganism had at the end of the 3rd century. Because of the persecution, however, a number of Christian communities were driven between those who had complied with imperial authorities (traditores) and those who had refused. In Africa, the Donatists, who protested the election of the alleged traitor, Caecilian, to the bishopric of Carthage, continued to resist the authority of the central church until after 411. The Melitians in Egypt left the Egyptian Church similarly divided.